Sex In the Industry: Why Men Need to Lean In and Listen

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Today’s post is a teachable moment. At least I hope it will be. It covers an uncomfortable albeit important topic and something that, up until this past weekend, I thought I’d never get called out for.

And that is….

The sexualization of women in the fitness industry.

 

Last weekend I presented at the NSCA Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference just outside of Philadelphia, PA.

It was a splendid event.

A record breaking event in fact, with well over 500+ attendees, making it the most highly attended NSCA event in the organization’s history outside of a national conference.

I was asked to present on both days of the conference, choosing to do the following 50 minute presentations:

  • The Deadlift (breaking down my preferred hip hinge progressions and general coaching concepts as it relates to the deadlift, and how to go about choosing the right variations for people).
  • The Shoulder: From Assessment to Badass (the main theme here was how to improve overhead mobility).1

I arrived back in Boston early Sunday morning feeling great about the weekend and pretty good about my performance overall.

While I could nitpick a few things I would have said or done differently, all in all, I felt I did a good job and was able get my message across. And the feedback I received from people at the conference was phenomenal.

Later that same day, however, while sitting at home, I received the following email from a female attendee, Amy:

“Hi Tony –

I just returned from the NSCA conference in PA. this weekend, where I was fortunate to hear you speak on both the deadlift and the super-exciting shoulder. I had the opportunity to meet your fabulous wife a couple of years ago when she presented the ‘I Am Not Afraid to Lift’ workshop with Artemis Scantalides in Severna Park, MD.

I follow you on the interwebs and really admire both the quality of the information you provide, as well as the generosity you show toward the coaches and trainers who are trying to get to where you are. I have to tell you, though, that I was thoroughly disappointed during your deadlift presentation when you chose to use a gratuitous and offensive ass-shot of a woman doing a cable pull-through.

None of your other slides featured women and you made some lame joke about Googling ‘cable pull through’ and that was the first hit that came up. It’s 2017.

I (and I know several other women in your audience shared my opinion) am fairly tired of attending strength seminars and workshops and being repeatedly confronted by presentations that (a) don’t attempt to equally represent women as examples/study participants/research subjects (b) objectify/sexualize women and (c) actually demean women in a public forum of fitness professionals.

I guess I was mostly surprised because I think you generally do a great job of supporting the strong women in your life. That slide and your presentation of it came across as exceedingly tone-deaf and I hope you will consider replacing it for future presentations on the deadlift. You have great information to share and you’re a talented and charismatic speaker. It’s a shame that you chose to offend a significant percentage of your audience in order to get a laugh.”

Needless to say, the second after I finished reading that I got a pit in my stomach.

I…felt…horrible.

It’s been four days since I received that email and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve emailed back and forth with the woman who sent the email (to apologize, to thank her for the constructive feedback, and to say this topic deserves discussion), I’ve discussed it with a few of my female clients, and I’ve broken it down at length with my wife, a psychologist.

I’ve purposely spent a few days digesting, un-packaging, and reflecting upon what Amy had to say in her email before I put fingers to keyboard.

So, I guess the best place to start is with the image itself:

In the middle of my presentation, as I was breaking down hip-hinge progressions, this is the image I used as an example of the cable pull-through.

Even though my first inclination was to be defensive – that’s Dani Shugart (the wife of my editor at T-Nation.com, Chris, and amazing writer herself), it was used in an article I wrote for the site titled “Pull-Throughs For Elite Strength,” the picture was taken at an angle, she’s wearing appropriate gym attire, and she’s demonstrating correct hip-hinge technique, that’s why I used it – Amy’s comments and feelings were/are valid.

Here’s why.

I don’t feel it was about the picture per se. It’s fairly neutral in nature.2

However, what wasn’t neutral was my momentary lack of tact and professionalism.

By chuckling when the slide first appeared on screen, making light of the situation with my “Google image” commentary, and making a joke out of it…I can see how it came across as objectifying and demeaning.

I made it a thing by my actions.3

In our subsequent email exchange I clarified with Amy that I DID use another image of a female in my presentation – I included a slide of a woman attempting a heavy sumo deadlift – however, the mere fact I chose to use that picture for that particular slide should come under scrutiny.

More to the point, the bigger theme at play here, I think, is that my commentary colored Amy’s experience. Those 20-30 seconds influenced what she got out of my presentation and what she remembered.

It wasn’t good, and that sucks.

It’s my goal to train women. To empower them. To show them that strength has its roots everywhere (and that the weight room is a wonderful place to harvest it).

In the end this was a teachable moment for me.

The last thing I want to do is sexualize women. It’s not lost on me that what happened in that room, in those 30 seconds, was, in some ways, a microcosm of what’s happening in today’s society.4

I don’t want any woman I work with or speak in front of to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, objectified, or ashamed.

Ever.

It’s our responsibility, especially as men, to lean in, listen, and be open to change.

Thank you Amy.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. My backup talk was just going to be me ranking and discussing my favorite Jason Bourne fight scenes.

  2. Although, admittedly, when magnified x10,000 on a large screen maybe not so much?

  3. UPDATE: to be clear: I DID NOT say anything overtly sexual in nature. It’s not like the image came up and I was like “check out dat ass everyone.”

    It came up, I chuckled, and made light of it by saying it was the the first image that came up on my Google search…thereby objectifying the image. In hindsight if all I did was say “yeah, this is a pic of how to do a hip hinge,” and then moved on, that would have been more appropriate. That’s the point, I believe.

  4. In no way am I insinuating I belong in the same breath as a Weinstein or a Lauer. But, at the same time, whether I like it or not, what happened last weekend is part of the issue.

  • Chris Chardon

    The complaint was that the image was a “gratuitous and offensive ass-shot”; the image was nothing of the sort. Your commentary may have been inappropriate, but the image was fine. If the image was really perceived to be the problem, Amy needs to take a step back.

  • Steven Head

    Hi Tony, First off, it was great to see you and hang with one of our industry’s “A-Listers” whom I follow and admire. I recall this moment, comment, I did have just an instant of uncomfortableness but I didnt give it too much thought. I’m not a woman, not as attuned and sensitive to subtle ‘transgressions.’ Clearly Amy is/was, and rightfully so. What I really love AND respect is your humility, your self-reflection, your willingness, hell, your ABILITY to sit with your initial reaction (e.g. defensive, negative) and let it pass and to find the lesson and the growth waiting for you on the “high road.” Kudos. Our entire industry suffers from sexualization and pandering, and unfortunately many women are themselves culpable (just stroll through YouTube for a while). Amy was absolutely right, though it was in the grand scheme a very minor infraction. A bigger point, like Elsbeth Vaino has highlighted, is that true female professionals in our industry are under-represented and under-appreciated. I share Girls Gone Strong with my female clients, share their posts on my Facebook friends. Anyone who is paying attention knows you are not part of the problem, your willingness to take this as an opportunity to grow and then share that opportunity suggests as much. Now, go lift something heavy!

    • Jayne

      It would be nice to have a wider range of resources that show women of all ages. I’ve stopped following GGS because they’re talking to the mum demographic just now, just because of their ages and current circumstances and it’s not of interest. Grouping women all together is very common and it’s not the case we have all the same issues or interests.

      Elsbeth is great, love her writing.

      Tony, don’t worry, you’ll always say something that’s not quite spot on, if women get too sensitive, it’s going to be a very boring place and all the banter will be gone. That said, the casual sexism elsewhere in the industry does get very tedious, once you pick up on it, it’s everywhere.

      • Jayne

        So why not just showcase all the strong women you train in your talks? Not just have a token pic?

        • Tony

          That’s an excellent point, and something I need to do a better job of in the future. I have included pics of clients (male and female) in previous presentations.

    • Tony

      Thanks for your perspective Steve, appreciate it. It was great catching up and hope to do it again soon.

  • Ken Farley

    Great points made in the article and the title says a lot. It’s time to LISTEN gentlemen. For those of you out there who are still fixated on rather the image is sexist, you have missed the point. It wasn’t the picture as Tony says, “I made it a thing by my actions.” Bravo to Amy for speaking up and not taking a step back and kudos to Tony for listening and opening up communication. Important points at a time in our history where men should be listening more and talking less.

  • kerve

    It’s great that you considered the feedback and looked at yourself to see how you can improve, even when the feedback is hyper-sensative and exaggerated to the point of being irrational.
    It’s a good thing that image is the first Google result, as you’ve pointed out it’s proper form and proper gym attire. If only we were only so lucky for all exercises.

  • There are many reasons a woman would be offended by the ass shot. The biggest one I have experience with is that when an insecure woman sees an image of another woman who looks the way she wishes she looked, she gets jealous. Maybe she believes it’s sexualizing because she believes others would find that image sexy, but might not look at her and think the same thing. Jealousy erupts, and it’s easy to point fingers and say that the man is being a pig and sexualizing the woman rather than admit that she is jealous.

    Of course, this may or may not be what Amy felt. It’s a possible reason for her being offended, but I could be way off base.

    I think the angle of the shot is appropriate to demonstrate the pull. Sure, the ass grabs my attention, but I can appreciate a good ass. It distracted me for a second, and now I can check out the rest of the photo. The model is wearing appropriate attire that is seen EVERYWHERE in gyms. She’s covered up. If she were wearing loose clothes, we wouldn’t be able to see the proper stance.

    Not everyone can be pleased, but it’s great to see you own up. Even if you feel you were in the clear, you made it right with this woman. Talk about being the bigger man! 😉

  • Noelle

    T-nation (where the image first appeared and to which the fitness professional in the photo and her husband contribute) is the most offensive fitness website I have ever read. It often uses language demeaning to women (analogies about sex and women’s bodies, for example). It feeds on men’s insecurities about their masculinity, and it even once published a terrible pseudo-science article that claimed that birth control “messes up” women’s hormones making them more attracted to “beta men”. That particular piece was so sexist and poorly researched that I found it surreal to read. T-nation is often a font of misinformation that reinforces bogus gender categories while masquerading as fact. I have zero respect for such a website, and if I saw an image I recognized from there, I would shut off for the rest of the presentation. I stopped paying attention to that website, and now purposely avoid it if it comes up in a google search on a topic.

    • Noelle

      I just realized you said that he was “your editor” and you must post there too. Please have your editor think more seriously about the language and content he posts on that website through a gender lens. I actually think it’s harmful for boys and girls to read.

  • Alex Maloy

    I agree with the comments that this is blown way out of proportion. You can not “sexualize” women because they are already all sexual beings, as are all men. Furthermore, exercise involves bending, squatting, lunging etc. which can sometimes be construed as sexy. Your google comment was perhaps awkward, however, it is hardly cause for grave offense. Maybe she should walk a mile in your shoes and consider that it is not easy to speak in front of a large audience before complaining. And maybe she should wait until she is mature enough to handle adult situations before attending her next conference.

  • I can’t summarily dismiss the complainant’s grievance because I don’t have the epistemic authority to on account of my not knowing what being a woman is like, but your offense wasn’t much of one. Considering the images floating around the internet of women doing fitness-related stuff, the photo you used is quite tame for the reasons you articulated. As for the commentary you provided when you introduced it, you making terrible jokes should have been expected by someone who professes to “follow you on the interwebs”, thus meaning she reads your work and should understand your terrible sense of humor. With that said, I was expecting this post to address something entirely different, like how some personal trainers have sex with their clients or why so many women feel the need to bare their bodies in order to make it as a fitness professional. I wasn’t expecting this, making the title sort of click-baity.

    • Tony

      I have a terrible sense of humor AND I’m click baity? Big fan of me huh?…..;o) Can’t say anything about my sense of humor, I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. However, as far as the “click baityness” of the post…….I mean, it’s not like the title was “Top 5 Reasons Back Squatting Gives You Cancer” or something like that. The topic WAS about sex (or, more specifically, the sexualization of women in the industry), and it was about how men should “lean in” and listen more to what women have to say on the matter. Hardly an egregious attempt at being clicky baity. However, it’s your opinion. That’s cool.